Johnson (1981) writes it may well be that with the exception of the Gospels Revelation is the most insightful and poignant instruction on Christian doctrine and discipleship found anywhere in Holy Scripture. Neither the extremism of some who have focused their attention on prophecy but not on Christ, nor the variety of interpretative opinions should dishearten us from pursuing Christian truth in this wondrous book. In pursuing this Christian truth the modern day church needs to continually affirm its eschatological position in relation to Revelation's message.
This article, therefore, critically discusses the context of the original audience, major theological themes found within Revelation, the intended impact of the book on the original audience and the main messages of the book for us today.
Context of the original audience
DeSilva (2002) states "An essential background for reading Revelation is the scope and ideology of Roman rule" (P. 898). Keener (2000) agrees with this statement affirming that focusing on the ancient rather than modern background is a compelling argument for understanding the book of Revelation (p. 21). Prior to expounding the social, religious and or political backdrop of the book's audience ascertaining the date of writing aids to identify the historical context of the author and reader.
Early church fathers suggested that Revelation stems from the time of the evil emperor Domitian at the end of the first century (Keener, 2000, p. 35). Desilva (2002) writes that proponents to this date see the writing earlier (68-69 C.E.), this based on assumptions regarding the interpretation of the content of the writing (p. 896). Ladd (1972), however, states "Tradition has ascribed the Revelation to the last decade of the first century when Domitian was emperor in Rome (A.D. 81-96). Some scholars have argued for an earlier date, but this is unlikely" (p. 8). Tenney (1958) additionally agrees "The later date has the advantage of being confirmed by definite historical evidence. Irenaeus stated specifically that the Apocalypse was written in the reign of Domitian" (p. 19). Proposing a late first century date of composition, researching the historical setting of the era gives clearer understanding to the context of the audience.
A central issue that would have arisen in the latter part of Domitian's reign was the worship of the emperor himself. Self deification had emerged in the reigns of Gaius Caligula, Nero and Domitian and whilst Romans in the central city may have viewed this as an act of Hubris and supreme arrogance (understanding the emperor to be mortal), outer provinces of the empire often erected temples dedicated to the goddess Roma (Rome) and to the emperor, thus to gain additional favor. The seven churches addressed in Revelation were exposed to this imperial cult that had formed (Keener, 2000, p. 37-38). Tenney (1959) writes of the persecution the early Christians were facing in this environment "The increased pressure of the totalitarian government made their position precarious and because of the known character of Domitian the future looked dark" (p. 21).
Barclay (1976) writes "By the time of Revelation Caesar worship was the one religion which covered the whole Roman empire; and it was because of their refusal to conform to its demands that Christians were persecuted and killed" (p. 15). Refuting a worldwide persecution of the Christian faith, during Domitian's rule, Ladd (1972) states that there is no evidence of a systematic persecution of the church during the last decade of the first century. The alleged persecution by Domitian was by no means empire-wide (p. 8-9). Ladd concludes that the persecution as stated within Revelation was localized in Ephesus, Pergamum (2:13) and Smyrna (2:10). He concludes that the prophecy of Revelation goes far beyond any known historical situation in the first century. While the Rome of John's day embodied antichristian tendencies, the Antichrist in Revelation 13 is far larger than historical Rome (Ladd, 1972, p. 8-9).
The words of Tenney (1957) potentially best suit the context of the readers, "Revelation recognized the spiritual forces that lay behind the hostility of Rome's political power. Its pagan might was derived from Satan, and the struggle was thus basically spiritual. The book was intended to arose the churches to the spiritual conflict that confronted them" (p. 22).
As with most interpretations, regarding the book of Revelation, the theological themes contained therein are debated amongst theologians. Marshal (2004) states "a large part of Revelation's theology is embedded in the titles it uses for God. 'Alpha and Omega/first and the last/beginning/the end' has its biblical origins in later prophetic pronouncements of God's uniqueness amongst the nations" (p. 314). Marshal continues that the references to the Divine name, including 'The one who is, who was and who is to come', prioritizes the present reality of God, and communicates his future reality in his coming to judge and save. (Marshal, 2004, p. 314). Seeing an alternative theological theme, whilst keeping God in focus, Beale (1999) states "The major theological theme of the book is the glory due to God because he has accomplished full salvation and final judgment. Even the notion of Christ and the church reigning ironically in the midst of their suffering and the idea of unbelieving persecutors experiencing spiritual defeat in the midst of their physical victories demonstrate the wisdom of God and point accordingly to his glory" (p. 171- 172).
The glory of God is undoubtedly a theme that is expressed within Revelation, whether God's Holiness proclaimed by the living creatures (Rev 4:8-11) or the Hallelujahs triumphant to the glory of God (Rev 19:1-5), God's majesty and victory is in focus throughout the message. However, this glory is shared, as Desilva (2007) states "Revelation thus loudly proclaims the lordship of God and God's Messiah, 'the ruler of the kings of the earth' (Rev 1:5; 11:15)." (p. 915).
Jesus God's Messiah
Concerning Jesus, Ladd (1972) states "The object of the revelation is the last things which God gave Christ, who in turn shows to his servants what must soon take place. God the father is the ultimate source and fountainhead of all revelation; God the Son is the agent through whom this revelation is imparted to men" (p. 21). Marshal (2004) states that the worship of the Lamb of God (Rev 4 and 5) signifies the leading of the worship of God, the two in turn combine throughout the message, "Jesus and God are so closely identified that the future of God for humankind is the coming of Jesus" (Marshal, 2004, p. 314). The significance of Jesus and Jesus' sacrifice for God is made clear in Chapter five, none are worthy to judge humankind, only the lamb of God, it is here that the combined praise of God and Jesus is clearly announced, "To him who sits on the throne and to the lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!" (Rev 5: 13).
The Followers of Christ
A final theological theme prevalent within Revelation are those that are saved, sealed and forgiven, the followers of Christ themselves. In Chapter seven the great multitude of those that have washed themselves in the blood of Christ and donned fine linen (the righteous acts of the saints) (Rev 19:8) are in focus as the followers of the Lamb (Christ). These are the people that are uplifted into heaven's realm and are in God's presence to serve and worship with the heavenly host.
Marshall (2004) states the followers of the lamb are to be faithful and endure suffering, they will conquer through witness and also be conquered, however victory ultimately belongs to the faithful follower through the work of the Lamb, on Jesus return this work will be complete (p. 314). These followers, the first century ones, need to be kept in focus; John's Revelation had an intended impact and purpose for these first fruits of the gospel of Christ.
Impact on Original Audience
Boring (2008) states "Revelation is the prophetical/pastoral response to two questions, which are the same question: the question of God ("who if anyone, rules the world?") and the question of history ("what, if any, is the meaning of the tragic events which comprise our history?"). These questions, as Boring proposes, were first and foremost in the minds of the early church. Political turmoil surrounding the Caesar cult of Rome and its Emperor would have caused the early Christians confusion over the rightful ruler ship of Jesus' claim to supremacy over earth. Thus the intentional impact was to quell any disbelief to this and promote the church's loyalty and faith in the almighty God of Israel (Boring, 2008, p. 258).
In Contrast Barr (2008) sees the impact as the intended blessing bestowed on those that would read it (Rev 1:3) and cursing on those that would add to the message (Rev 22:18-19). Primarily here the integrity of the message faithfully reproduced amongst its audience was a major concern, John the author, sought his audience to understand he was communicating a message from Christ himself, its authority was a revelation given to him direct (Rev 1:1-2) (p. 250- 251).
Certainly the message given to the seven churches (Rev 2-3) is posed by scholars as a pastoral concern, admonishing, praising and rebuking their faith; the intended impact, however, was to strengthen the church members under persecution to faithful service unto the end. Although the precise end time of Jesus coming would be unbeknown to any (Matthew 24:36) their perseverance under suffering was a message John sought to impact upon his first century readers.
The Message for today
In forming an eschatological position for today's church, expounding the book of Revelation, whilst utilizing a 'sane' hermeneutical approach, helps fully appreciate the timeless messages this literature still has for the followers of Christ. Of the new creation imminent in God bringing the fullness of community to mankind, Grentz (1994) states "One of the most awe-inspiring and challenging visions of the entire Bible is the seer's anticipation that God himself will participate in the new creation: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them'" (Rev 21:3) (p. 647). The advent of God living with us upon the earth certainly gives insight into the significance believer's should place in being prepared, sanctified and ready for this assurance.
Perhaps, therefore, focusing on the message of Revelation, thus being prepared for God's arrival (a calling to holiness) is of more import than trying to ascertain when God arrives, even though Christ has made it clear none shall know! In the exploit of millennialism, preterist approach or linear over cyclic timelines, we potentially lose the wonderful insights God gives us in his timeless Revelation.
Keener (2000) summarizes a few of the messages still so relevant for today's church. God is awesomely majestic as well as sovereign of all our troubles. Jesus' sacrifice as the Lamb ultimately brings complete deliverance for those that trust him. Proclaiming Christ invites persecution, the normal sate of committed believers in any age. That God can accomplish his purpose through a small and persecuted remnant; he is not dependant on what the world values as power. And finally, and moist poignant, Christ is worth dying for (p. 41).
This paper has critically discussed the aspects of Revelation in regard to the original audience's context, intended impact, theological themes and message for today's church. Whilst it is clear the message of Revelation is by no means straight forward, understanding the historical background of the author's setting and purpose helps to clear some of the misconceptions that abound in the message's meaning.
For a church, whether yesterday, today or tomorrow, focusing on the message of the big picture; God's Grace and majesty, his mercy extended in Christ, the Lamb of God, and the call to an undying faith even under persecution should be kept at heart when taking an eschatological stance.
It seems when churches go looking for ghosts in the forest within the granular details of revelation, they can become lost grasping at trees of truth that are not even there. The message of Revelation is timeless and speaks to any generation, Christ will come like a thief in the night, being prepared is being dressed accordingly to his direction, and clothing oneself in the righteous acts of the saints (Rev 19:8) seems an appropriate eschatological position in the face of complex interpretations that continually fail to eventuate.
Barclay, W. (1976). The Revelation of John. Edinburgh, UK: The Saint Andrew Press.
Barr, D.L. (2008). The Apocalypse of John as Oral Enactment. Interpretation. 40(3), 243-256.
Beale, G. K. (1999). The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Boring, M.E. (2008). The Theology of Revelation. Interpretation. 40(3), 257-269.
Desilva, D.A. (2004). An Introduction to the New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVasity Press.
Grentz, S.J. (1994). Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Ladd, G.E. (1972). A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Marshall, H. I. (2004).New Testament Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity Press.
Keener, C.S. (2000). The NIV Application Commentary Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Johnson, A. F. (1981). "General Nature and Historical Background of Revelation" In The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Volume 12. 399. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.